Simon Hanukaev's family has lived along the western shore of the Caspian Sea for generations. Settled near the city of Derbent, a southern city in the Russian republic of Dagestan, Hanukaev's predecessors lived through khanates and tsars, under Bolshevik revolution and Stalinist resettlement. His parents, after Simon was born in the early 1980s, then watched Gorbachev's policies fail, and saw those among autonomous republics south of the Caucaus Mountains declare their independence, and stood while the Chechen neighbors to the direct west attempted, once more, to finally throw off Moscow's chokehold for the first time in 150 years.
Simon, now settled in Houston -- and more on that in a minute -- was too young to appreciate any of these shifts. He and his friends were more interested in schoolwork and Shabbat than in any of the geopolitics surrounding Dagestan. But then, turning into his adolescence, he started reading about the Gulf War. He started seeing things on the news of the bloody battles waged between autocratic Armenia and dictatorial Azerbaijan.
He started noticing -- or he couldn't escape -- the affects of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to send the might of the Russian military into Grozny, into Chechnya, to stamp out an independence movement whose precedent threatened to crumble Russia.
All the while, as one of the few Jewish kids in a largely Muslim republic, Hanukaev couldn't help but connect those religio-political schisms to the scattered clumps of children he'd see on the way to school, the ones who'd scream, "You're Jewish! Go away! Go back to your country!" He'd try to walk through, to push past. They yelled. They pushed back. "And I didn't know what my country was," Hanukaev, the owner of My Pita, on Hillcroft, told Hair Balls. And so, as the world around the Caucasus caught fire in the early '90s, Hanukaev, one of the few Caucasians in Houston, went to his parents with a request."I told my parents that we needed to go to Israel," Hanukaev, now in his early 30s, said. "It was my idea! I didn't tell my parents about fighting all the time." So they moved, leaving Russia, leaving the home the older generations had carved, behind. "Israel is a beautiful country, one of the most in the world," he told Hair Balls. "Everything is together, and the people -- they're very happy people."
Hanukaev is burly, with salt-and-pepper stubble and a small black yamaca clipped on while he whirls the schwarama and hummus and Levantine food to the customers in My Pita. He says he was struck by wanderlust toward his final years in Israel, and ended up meeting a Ukrainian-American woman a few years past, winding their way to Texas not long after. He stands as one of the few members of the North Caucasian diaspora that escaped the depravity of both the Putin regime and the Kadyrov claque. One of the few Dagestanis in Houston, he's more attuned than most to the world that the relatives of the Boston bombers left, and which Tamerlan Tsarnaev saw briefly in 2012.
"It's a beautiful place, and most of the people there have an open mind, and live with peace, and want to bring more tourists and people," Hanukaev said. "But Chechens, the people in Chechnya -- they never forget it. They can come to you after 20 years, and try to kill you. They never forget. It's a lot about respect.
"It's like you say, 'Don't mess with Texas' -- you don't mess with Chechnya ten times [as much]." Still, that's not to say that the Tsarnaev brothers -- the losers, the douchebags -- were reared in such a world, or with such education. We still know next to nothing about their upbringing. Their ethnicity plays as much of a role in their decision as their hair color, or as their height. These traits are immutable and unchosen.
Rather, that's simply to say that Hanubaev, who hasn't returned to Dagestan since his departure, understands where the rancor required for this action can come from. He's the open type -- the customer service at My Pita, to say nothing of the food, was par excellence. He won't hold a grudge. But he understands why others do. He's seen the things that can make a Dagestani and a Chechen and an Ingush step up, opposing the Russian contingent that's colonized the area since the 1850s -- or what can make them flee, never to return.
"Everything in Boston was just really, really wrong," Hanukaev said. "These people were so young -- they're not supposed to do that. But, I mean, I think it's what they really want to do. Somebody wanted to bomb them. [But] I don't know what the reason was."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.